Only once I stepped onto the court one evening last May did it occur to me how unprepared I was to reenter the world of pickup basketball. Hopping on my toes in brand-new sneakers while sizing up the other players in the high school gym, I realized that I was terrified of a sport I’d played my whole life.
The last time I’d been on a court, I tore my Achilles. For four years after that, I stayed away from the sport, the longest I’d ever gone without hooping.
That absence weighed heavily on my spirits. Basketball has always been a meditative experience for me. In my earliest memories of the game, I waddled around the backyard entranced by my older cousin Jed’s hypnotic dribbling, trying to anticipate the ball’s movement so I could grab it. In adolescence, I spent hours shooting hoops after school, losing myself to the rhythmic muscle memory that makes the ball feel like a remote extension of my body, controlled with mechanical instinct. In adulthood, some of the only extended stretches of time when I’ve been truly present — and away from a phone screen — were the evening pickup runs with guys I saw every week but knew little about, passionate competitions that left me filled with joy on my commute home no matter what else clouded my thoughts.
But now I could barely take a stride on the hardwood without flashing back to the moment that tendon had snapped. I felt the knot of scar tissue above my heel when I ran, at a top speed slower than I’d ever been since early puberty. I reckoned with my diminished physical form each time I leaped for a rebound and didn’t elevate as high as I expected. I played as if I were lost on the court, ignorant of my shortcomings, trying things I wasn’t capable of but (I swear) used to do all the time. I was playing in a body I wasn’t familiar with.
Younger guys sped past me and vaulted above me. For the first time in my 33 years on Earth, I felt old. After the first game, I was so exhausted that I sat out the next two, lying flat on the bench and wondering if my days as a respectable pickup basketball player were over.
In July 2018, at a weekly Monday night pickup run inside an elementary school gym in Manhattan’s Chinatown, I was on defense and one of the guys was driving to the hoop. He was in his late 50s, with graying hair, wrinkled arms, and generic sneakers. I was a 29-year-old former college football player in the prime of my pickup basketball career. I stepped in front of him and leaped to try to swat the shot. It was out of reach, but the ball bounced off the rim. A miss. Even before I hit the ground, I was planning my next moves: snatch the rebound, streak upcourt, tie the game.
But when I landed and tried to jump again, I felt a snapping pain in my left leg, like somebody had kicked me in the calf. I fell to the ground. The other players gathered around me. Within a few seconds, it dawned on me that what I felt was my Achilles tendon severing in two and rolling up like a window shade.
“I think I tore my Achilles,” I said in a low voice.
“Nah, you probably just sprained your ankle real bad,” one of the guys said. Others echoed his diagnosis, trying to make me feel better. “If you tore your Achilles, you’d be screaming in pain right now.”
But I couldn’t pull my foot upward. Reaching down, I couldn’t find that prominent tendon above my heel — just a vacant pocket of flesh. I’d watched enough sports to understand that an Achilles can tear when you try to jump again right after landing from a jump. I’d heard players say it feels like getting kicked in the calf. After Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles in 2013, he famously sunk two free throws before calmly walking to the locker room.
I kept a straight face and tried not to think about everything that would follow. Next week, I was supposed to go to New Orleans to see a friend. Next month, I was supposed to be a groomsman at a wedding in Massachusetts. After that, I was supposed to go on my first book tour.
The guys carried me out of the gym, through the long hallways lined with inspirational quotes, and down the steps at the front of the school. I called an Uber, setting the destination for the nearest hospital. My buddy John hopped in with me for moral and physical support. The others patted me on the shoulder. See you back on the court soon, they said. But I knew that wouldn’t happen.
The moment you step onto a court filled with people you’ve never hooped with, it’s important to absorb as much information as you can as quickly as possible. The greatest superpower a pickup hooper can have is understanding their role in any given game. You might have played point guard when you were the smallest kid on your middle school AAU team, but if you’re one of the two or three tallest dudes in a game where everybody is under 6-foot-4, I regret to inform you that you’ll instead need to crash the glass and protect the paint like Hakeem Olajuwon. You’ll notice pretty quickly where you stand on the ball-handling spectrum: People with sick handles tend to squeeze in some fancy dribble work during warm-ups to let everyone know in advance they plan to run point. Those who can shoot really well tend to be more sneaky, nonchalantly hovering around the periphery before unleashing their fire right in your face, but if you pay close attention you can sometimes spot them from their laid-back strut, exerting minimal effort because their value on the court is secure.
In childhood, I was usually one of the smaller kids on the court, so I relied on my shooting and dribbling prowess to prove my worth. With the endless free time of youth and a hoop in our suburban Sacramento driveway, I practiced those skills for hours every day. Entering adulthood, though, my game no longer required so much finesse. Years of football training had made me stronger, faster, and bouncier than a lot of the people I encountered in the world of grown-up pickup hoops. I occupied the low post, soared for rebounds, and avoided taking any shots that weren’t layups.
Shortly after I moved to New York City, a friend from work, Jesus, invited me to join his Wednesday night pickup run in midtown Manhattan. Jesus was in his early 60s, and I watched him with awe and admiration. Though he was often the slowest one out there, his dependable jump shot made him a critical asset. Shuffling around in knee braces and glasses, he’d casually make his way to one of his hot spots, ready to fire as soon as the ball touched his hands, with a release too quick for even the spryest defenders to block. “Game,” he’d say before the ball even hit the net, securing the victory. “And the good guys win.”
At the end of the runs, we’d play one-on-one. Though I was taller and more athletic, he’d school me with clever pump fakes and long-range precision. I learned from Jesus that there is always a place for you on the court if you can hit an open jumper. It’s the sport’s most important qualification, yet one unrestricted by height or age. Newly inspired to resurrect my jump shot from childhood, I spent those one-on-one sessions searching for a form that felt comfortable, grasping for old flows that lay out of reach, loosening my off-hand, rotating my wrist, kicking my leg, tinkering each gear until one day I felt it click into place, the whole machine suddenly aligned and buttery smooth.
By the time I tore my Achilles, my jump shot was as consistent as it had ever been, a fact I held dearly when I returned to the sport four years later. Whatever other attributes I’d lost, there still would be a place on the court for me as long as I could shoot.
Early in my recovery, friends asked me when I thought I’d play basketball again. I wasn’t sure if I would. I began to suspect it wasn’t worth the risk anymore. A serious leg injury brings serious inconveniences.
I tried to maintain whatever normalcy I could. I pushed through with all my travel. My doctor warned me about flying on an airplane because sitting without my leg elevated for an extended period raised the chances of a blood clot. He advised me to take aspirin to thin my blood. I went to New Orleans in early August, returning a few days before my surgery. Two weeks after that, I went to Massachusetts, where I stood in a line of groomsmen during a wedding, with a navy blue stocking over my cast to match our suits and a device that attached to my knee like a peg leg, allowing me to march down the aisle and two-step on the dance floor. The next month, I hosted my book release in a Brooklyn bookstore, then attended events in Washington, DC, and Oakland, California, each time wearing the navy blue suit pants from the wedding because I’d sliced the cuff to fit over the bulbous plaster on my leg. Everywhere I went, people asked what had happened, and when I told them, a wince of immense pity would cross their face because everybody knew that a torn Achilles meant a long, grueling recovery.
I walked up stairs two steps at a time, and walked down stairs backward so I could lean forward to keep balance. I dropped into my office in Manhattan every few weeks and went on dates as if there wasn’t a giant contraption attached to my leg. After three months, my cast was off, replaced by a boot and a cane. After six months, I was walking freely with barely a limp. After eight months, I could jog across the street. By the spring, I was living life as I always had, except that I had not stepped foot on a basketball court.
Yet basketball was all around me, reminding me of what I’d left behind. Every spring, I gathered with my homies Brian and Pat at Finnerty’s, a Bay Area bar in Manhattan’s East Village, to watch the Golden State Warriors romp through the playoffs — an exhilarating three-month boot camp of heavy beer consumption and high-stakes games that typically concluded after midnight. My Achilles healed just in time for the 2019 NBA playoffs, and I strolled into the bar without cast, cane, or limp.
In June, the Warriors made it to the Finals for the fifth straight year. We knew the triumphs wouldn’t last forever. Sports are a cycle of peaks and declines, rising and falling stars, the promise of youth and the inevitability of age. And when your favorite athletes are your contemporaries, you feel a more intimate connection with the state of their bodies, so we had good reason to worry.
But we could not have foreseen how traumatic the fall would be. In the fifth game of the NBA Finals, we watched in horror as 30-year-old Kevin Durant crumpled to the ground, grabbing the back of his leg. Torn Achilles. In the next game, three days later, we turned ashen upon seeing 29-year-old Klay Thompson land awkwardly after a dunk attempt, holding his knee as he writhed on the hardwood. Torn ACL.
A year later, just before he was supposed to return for the 2020 season, Thompson tore his Achilles in a summer pickup game, a devastating misfortune that set him back another year of recovery.
Another year passed without me touching a basketball. It was easy to find excuses. I needed to make sure I was completely healed. I needed to get back in shape. I needed to practice my jump shot. But in the back of my mind, I knew I was scared. I was afraid of suffering another bad injury. I feared confronting how severely my skills had eroded and how much weaker my body had become. I couldn’t bear to imagine myself as anything less than an elite athlete, faster and stronger than those around me. I couldn’t risk the possibility of revealing myself to be a scrub.
Then, in January 2022, Thompson returned to the court. He scored 17 points. He even threw down a dunk. I was mesmerized, inspired.
Pat and his cousins had a weekly pickup run. After three years of claiming that I would one day join, I finally signed on, even as I silently wondered if I’d flake. I promptly purchased new lime green Giannis Antetokounmpo sneakers, $16 Nike compression socks, and mesh shorts in at least three different colors.
I learned the hard way that my jump shot had forsaken me. In my first game back, I airballed my first shot in front of all these younger Filipino dudes from Staten Island I’d never met before. I wanted to tell them that I used to be able to shoot really well, that I just needed to warm up a bit more, that I was returning from a serious injury — but before I could complete the thought, the ball was whizzing by me, the guy I was supposed to be guarding was calling for an alley-oop, and all I could see was a flash mob of ligaments and tendons, stretching and springing like dancing slinkies. The next morning, I was so sore I could barely walk.
A week later, before the second pickup run of my return, I arrived at the gym early to put up a few jumpers. To my horror, my shot seemed to have gotten even worse. Each time I elevated and flung the ball up, my contortions felt uncomfortable, alien somehow, like I was talking to somebody at a party but didn't know what to do with my hands. I missed nearly every one and couldn’t even settle on a form I felt confident in.
Yet on the game’s first possession, when a stocky point guard with a thick Brooklyn accent passed me the ball on the wing, I let loose, reflexively more than anything. I regretted my decision the moment the ball left my fingertips, off-kilter and jagged, like a dancer who can’t find the beat.
“Yo, good shot, son,” the point guard said.
I have no idea how the ball went in. I strutted back up the court, face all chill, like the cold-blooded shooter I aspired to be. I missed my next two shots badly, but my reputation lived off the fumes of that first one, so the point guard kept feeding me the ball, directing me to open spots, calling on teammates to set screens to free me up. That poor point guard couldn’t understand why I kept passing up open looks and swinging the ball to the next guy. “Yo, that’s your shot,” he said, which boosted my confidence even though I doubted his faith.
A few games into the run, my body started to remember the movements. I’d go minutes without thinking about the injury, losing myself in the flow of the game. I paced myself well enough to play two, then three games in a row without my lungs begging me to stop. I held my own against a guy at least 3 inches taller and a decade younger than me, even though he caught me flat-footed with a quick first step on a drive to the hoop that won his team the evening’s final game. By the end of the run, I was feeling myself, chopping it up with the other guys. I felt like my old self, in my old body, playing my old game.
My confidence carried into my next pickup run a week later. I took shots from farther out. I dribbled up the court after rebounds. I jumped higher, ran faster, pushed harder. My body moved with a bouncy swagger that used to feel familiar.
After snagging a long rebound early in the second game, I raced up the left side of the court, breezing past all but one defender, who tried to cut me off from the hoop. I mashed the accelerator, planning to beat him to the spot and scoop in an easy layup. But as soon as I hit the gas and extended my stride, I felt a pop in my right hamstring and tumbled to the ground.
I didn’t touch a basketball again for six months. My pulled hamstring had healed after a few weeks, but any confidence I had left evaporated in the hot fear of my body breaking down again.
I had no appetite for competition, but I craved the feeling of finding a shooting rhythm and realized that I couldn’t be fully at peace when I went too long without its meditative embrace. In December, I was back in Sacramento’s suburbs, so I found an empty blacktop in a park surrounded by houses that all looked the same.
For a moment, everything was still and silent. All that existed was the ball’s bounce, echoing across the fields and slapping against my palm on its way back up. I launched the ball from just inside the three-point line. Clank. A couple steps closer. Clank.
Each miss caromed the ball off the rim and sent it bounding into the grass, punishment for my inaccuracy. Clank. With each miss, I adjusted my form, raising my release point, widening my legs. Swish. Clank. Swish. My body eased into a distant muscle memory as if catching up with an old friend. Clank. Swish. Swish. My conscious mind turned off and all I knew were my own movement and the sound of the ball.
I launched open jumper after open jumper, waiting for my old rhythm to click into place, trying to get to know the new body I was playing in. I needed new moves for it, clever fakes and tighter handles to accommodate its physical limitations. I now understood that I had to develop a whole new style for the next chapter of my basketball life, and as I tested what my body could do, the empty court felt like a blank canvas. With every swish, a rush of euphoria flooded through me, slowly flushing out the fear until all that was left was freedom. ●